How 3D printing will disrupt mining, in a good way

NASA is planning to use 3D printers on the International Space Station and several companies hope to employ them to mine near-earth asteroids.

Seen as an expensive hobby 20 years ago, 3D printing (see refresher below) has now firmly established a reputation as the future of manufacturing. But there is enormous potential for this technology during mineral extraction too. So what are the applications for 3D printing in mining here on earth?

3D printed parts. Photo: Andrew Craigie, Flickr

3D printed parts. Photo: Andrew Craigie, Flickr

Mine supplies streamlined by onsite 3D printers

With future mine-able deposits likely to be found deeper underground in increasingly hostile environments, mining companies will need to employ the latest technologies to mine resources safely and efficiently.

3D printing provides an opportunity to streamline and optimize in-bound supply chains, as outlined in this recent report by consulting firm accenture. It describes 3 ways that advanced 3D printing facilities on mine sites will change the way we operate:

  • On-demand and on-site: Equipment downtime is costly, but with access to a digital service parts library, operations in remote locations would be able to print the parts needed. This not only saves on the expense of flying in parts but if raw materials for printing could be sourced locally, further savings can be made.
  • Custom and replicable: The ability to copy an existing object and replicate it as needed is easy with a 3D printer. Equipment could be created to suit particular piece of machinery, or rock types or weather conditions, further extending the life of equipment.
  • Leaner and greener: The points above allow for fewer transport miles for goods, but in addition, 3D printers can also ‘consume’ the raw material after the final product is worn out. As products and parts come to the end of their working life, they can become raw material for new parts.

Now if that hasn’t blown your mind, this will: an account of the Chelyuskin rare-earth metals (future) mine, deep within the Arctic Circle in Siberia, Russia, from the imaginative minds of the guys who compiled the report I mentioned.

The benefits of on-site, on-demand and custom production capability is a surely a game-changer for the mining industry.

3D printing refresher

Rather than squirting ink across and down a page like traditional printers, three-dimensional (3D) printers add layers of material on top of each other to create items you can hold in your hand.

If you’d like to brush up on the basics, check out my article on 3D printing in The Helix earlier this year.